Kevin Murphy is best known for his work on Mystery Science Theater 3000, the TV show about a man sent into space by mad scientists and forced to watch terrible films. In each episode, the unwilling astronaut and two robot friends sat in front of a movie screen and ridiculed that week’s cinematic disaster. Among those who have seen Mystery Science Theater 3000, about 99% became fanatics of the show. (The other 1% are mostly television executives.) Murphy worked as a writer on MST3K throughout its 1988-99 run on television, which included stints on a local Minneapolis station and two cable networks. From 1990 until the show ended, he was the puppeteer for Tom Servo, a small, relatively immobile robot but a hero to wiseasses everywhere.
In this interview, Murphy talks about Mystery Science Theater and his recent projects with former MST3K colleagues Bill Corbett and Mike Nelson. He also tells stories from his time working as a bouncer at a punk club in 1979-80. Other topics include his book A Year at the Movies and his current writing project, Why Hollywood Sucks. I laughed a lot during our conversation. It’s always fun when Murphy applies his sharp wit to bad cinema, but he’s just as entertaining when talking about good films and movie venues.
Chris: You wrote that you once worked at Merlyn’s, a punk club in Madison, Wisconsin. When did you work there?
Kevin: Oh, man, let me tell you. That was such a wonderful time. That was ’79 and ’80, the winter and spring. And, boy, wasn’t that a time, as the old folks say.
Chris: Which bands did you see and which did you like best?
Kevin: It was this combination of the new wave people with the thin ties and the pointy shoes and that sort of thing, and then the American punk scene was starting to come on—bands like Black Flag and the L.A. punk scene. Some of my favorites were the Stranglers, who were wonderful fun. Killing Joke was fantastic. The Stranglers were the only band that genuinely scared me when they were on stage, because they started with all the lights off and they started playing “Waltz in Black” and going right into “Just like Nothing on Earth.” They were really loud and they had no lights on in the whole club and people were starting to get a little disturbed. When the HB strutters were backing away from the stage, you knew that they had something going on.
As the legend goes, that night at Merlyn’s, when the kids really started getting into it and one of them spat on the bass player, well, he kicked the kid in the face and sent him to the hospital. That really kept ’em back. They were saying, “We can out-punk you fuckers any day of the week.” I got to see U2 on their first American leg. Gang of Four was a blast: we stayed up and they drank white russians and amaretto and coke and played pool. They were a really fun band to see. XTC played there, the Pretenders, James Chance from James Chance and the Contortions. I actually got to see him pass out. I was a bouncer at the time. I went back into the dressing room and saw him shooting up. He came out and played two songs and fell down on the stage and that was the end of the show. It was a tiny club: I think the capacity was about 235 and we routinely went over that by about 100 people.
Chris: In that era, you had the origins of slam dancing and stage diving. Did you see any of that while you were there?
Kevin: Well, yeah. It came to Madison under the guise of the “Huntington Beach strut.” That’s what they called it. It was all that stuff. It was the under-age kids who just wanted to get some aggression out, work it out on the dance floor. There was some stage diving going on there. The hardest thing was being a bouncer for something like that because there were a few people who just didn’t want to be rushed on the stage. The Rezillos actually left the stage because it became a spit-fest. That was a little nasty. Joan Jett could take care of herself—nobody fucked with Joan Jett on stage—and Siouxsie Sioux was the same way. The women were never any problem. The boys would just beat the hell out of each other and go out of the club bloody and happy and smiling. I just remembered, one of my favorite shows I saw there was X when they were in their heyday. They were so tight and they sounded so great.
Chris: You worked on the crew of a 1987 film called Blood Hook, directed by (Mystery Science Theater 3000 producer) Jim Mallon. That must have been interesting.
Kevin: Well, it was originally entitled Muskie Madness, which was far more of a midwestern title. They sold the film to Troma, and the guys at Troma said, “Nobody’s going to know what a muskie is outside of Wisconsin. Are you kidding me?” So they changed the name to Blood Hook. (The title) had “blood” in it and that was enough for the guys at Troma. It was the most fun I ever had at summer camp, about six weeks up in the north woods of Wisconsin, shooting this movie. It was the story of a crazed bait shop owner who would grind up unwitting victims and feed them to his minnows so he could raise bait to catch the prize-winning muskie in the muskie tournament.
Chris: So it was kind of like a twist on Motel Hell?
Kevin: It was a teens-on-a-spree movie. You know, they go up to this cabin and they start disappearing one by one. They find ’em on a stringer underneath one of the docks—all these bloated heads. The effects were really very cheesy and we nearly killed ourselves several times. It was an inexperienced crew and we were running high-voltage lighting over the water. I’m really surprised no one died. All the sets were built with chainsaws and screw-guns.
Chris: Well, that’s true to the form.
Chris: You covered a lot of different types of movies on MST3K, horror and sci-fi obviously, but also everything from biker flicks to Cold War dramas. Which genre of film did you most enjoy skewering?
Kevin: Oh, that’s a good—I really liked Girl in Gold Boots, that sort of thing. It was a hippy crime wave film. There was that go-go thing going on. I just loved these stodgy Hollywood producers who tried to show themselves as hip and they’d fail miserably. The leading men would always be way too old and the leading women always too young, which is the model for the Hollywood sexual relationship to this day, unless you’re Joan Collins and have a stable full of bucks there.
Chris: So you’re talking about producers like Arch Hall Sr. (director/producer of Eegah)?
Kevin: Yeah, yeah! He was the stereotypical leering old fart. You’d expect him to have a highball (glass) in his hand and he had the little pencil moustache and the dinner jacket, letting his son go off with the girls and all that fun out there in their dune buggies. I just loved that because my dad was a severely intolerant Depression baby. He thought that Crosby, Stills, and Nash were the unholy trinity. Frank Zappa just sent him over the edge. So that sort of complete confusion about the generation gap—that anybody at that time who was over fifty could be hip—just always made me laugh.
Chris: Others who worked on Mystery Science Theater have talked about the fact that the different writers’ senses of humor meshed so well. Did that rapport exist right off the bat or did it take time to develop?
Kevin: Well, there was a core group of us there for almost the whole duration and we learned how to complement each other. There were opposing sensibilities—political, cultural, senses of humor—that became complementary and it sort of gave us a collective IQ of about 500. I think Frank Conniff was the one who came up with a reference to Anna Kisselgoff, who was the dance critic for the New York Times in the ’50s. Who the hell’s gonna pull that out? Not me. So we all had our way of bringing our obscure passions to the fore. That ended up being a great asset, because it made all of us seem much smarter than each of us was individually.
Chris: At the end of a long day of bad movies, did you ever watch a favorite good movie as a sort of antidote?
Kevin: I always had a copy of The Godfather around—and the second Godfather—just because I loved it so much. Occasionally, I’d get a good comedy and throw it on. With some of these films, you had to find some way to recapture your soul after you got off work. You’d get these films like Red Zone Cuba, by Coleman Francis. I don’t know the guy, but I just assume that he was some sort of sex criminal. In one of his movies (The Beast of Yucca Flats) he actually has himself raping a woman and leaving her for dead. Who the hell does that? I mean Kevin Costner wouldn’t even do that.
Chris: I think the highlight of Red Zone Cuba was when John Carradine sang.
Kevin: (Sings opening of song) “Night Train to Mundo Fine.” The thing that got me was when they all got into the boat in order to go over and invade the Bay of Pigs and it’s so obvious that they’re on Lake Mead. I lost it right at that moment.
Chris: Rhino’s new volume of MST episodes includes one of my favorites, Horrors of Spider Island. Do you have any particularly fond—or painful—memories of that episode or the others included in this volume?
Kevin: Horrors of Spider Island is great because it’s a chick/monster film, and they run around in their underwear and they have girl fights—all of the things you really want in a chick/horror film. Most of these films are still a blur to me, but Spider Island I remember just for the girl fights.
Chris: I remember that Tom Servo kept fainting during those.
Kevin: That’s right!
Chris: Were you acting or was that real?
Kevin: It must me be an extension of my personality—that’s all I can say. I have a thing for girl fights. I hope Jane (Murphy’s partner) doesn’t read this article. Oh, boy. But it was one of those films that was painful, because if we’d had a good print with good sound, it just would have been heaven to do the film. But with bad movies quite often, they didn’t care enough to record good sound or to actually put enough light in the room to expose the film. But I think there’s enough silliness in it and enough chickage in it that it overrides all the bad aspects.
Chris: One thing that’s frustrated MST fans is that relatively few episodes are available for sale, due to licensing issues. You’ve recently worked with Mike Nelson on Rifftrax, making film commentaries that people can buy and download. Could you talk about that?
Kevin: Well, that’s a wonderful thing from our new world of MP3s and podcasts. Now we can make a commentary for a film without having to attach it to the movie. We allow the consumer to do that, so all we are doing is just giving you an opinion that you can run concurrent with the film. It gives us license to do things that we never thought we could do. We can make fun of Battlefield Earth or the Star Wars movies.
Chris: You’ve also worked with Mike Nelson and Bill Corbett reporting on film for National Public Radio under the title of the Film Crew. Would you tell me about the Film Crew’s upcoming DVD releases?
Kevin: Yeah, the other thing we have going is with Shout! Factory, which is a great little arm for people who want some cool alternative music and video collections. We produced four DVDs with them. These are the kind of movies that we used to do on Mystery Science Theater 3000—some cheesy older films. Since we don’t have puppets anymore, we needed a new way to do this. Everybody knows what a DVD commentary is, so we decided to play this little rag-tag group of employees. Their job is to weld commentary tracks to every movie, because their boss believes that every film, no matter how bad, deserves a commentary track. We’ve got four different DVDs coming out. The first one is called Hollywood after Dark, a film shot in the early ’60s. For some reason, it wasn’t released until ’68. It’s a grim, noir-ish film that features Rue McClanahan from Golden Girls as a stripper. She strips in these dingy nightclubs probably out by the airport on Sepulveda in L.A. It’s about her tawdry life and the fellow who falls in love with her, who’s this aimless depressive. Without us, I think anybody who tried to watch this would just get in the tub and open their wrists. Thank God we’re there. Poor Rue, she’s young and sweet and she got cast in this thing, so she has to go up there and shake her good stuff. There are these extended stripping scenes, but it never gets too weird or too nakedy.
Chris: You had a vote on the (Film Crew) web site to decide which DVD you would release first and that film won.
Kevin: Overwhelmingly so, yes.
Chris: I know a lot of people who can’t believe that Wild Women of Wongo didn’t win.
Kevin: Oh, I thought that might be next up, because that was really fun. It’s a relentlessly stupid film, which works perfectly for us. It features these two warring caveman tribes. On one island, the men are ugly, brutish, and old. The women are all young, zaftig, gorgeous, and horny as can be. On the other island, the men are all buff and undoubtedly every last one of them is gay. And the women there all have moustaches and monobrows. So it’s a confusion of the sexes, what can you say? Of course, they have to kidnap each other. There’s a point where you’ve got all the beautiful ones doing this—at the time, I guess—highly erotic tribal dance. So, that’s what’s going to keep the kids coming back for more. If you ever had the hots for Betty Rubble, this is your movie.
Chris: I’m still a little disturbed by the thought of Rue McClanahan’s “good stuff” in Hollywood after Dark.
Kevin: Well, we all had good stuff. We all have a window of attractiveness that, if we’re lucky, lasts six months. If we’re normal, it lasts about three weeks and then we’re done for the rest of our lives.
Chris: When you’re doing a project for Rifftrax or the Film Crew, does it ever feel weird not to have the robots around?
Kevin: You know, the robots had their time and it was a whole different show. Whenever we took the robots outside of the context of Mystery Science Theater, that always seemed weird. They made us take them on the road to promote the Mystery Science Theater movie. We were on with Joan Lunden (of ABC) and she was asking the puppets real questions: “When is the movie coming out?” “How was it to work on it?” We wanted to say: “Honey, we don’t know these things. We’re puppets. Are you talking to the guy under the table or are you talking to me? You should make up your mind, because a puppet can’t answer a factual question.” So, when the show ended, it was time to put the puppets away and I think I’ve done enough puppeteering for one career.
Chris: In your 2002 book, A Year at the Movies, you talked about how the big studios and theater chains effectively crowd out films from smaller production companies. In 2004, some argued that the success of documentaries that year would create more room for independent films in general. Do you get the sense that opportunities for independent filmmakers have improved since ’04?
Kevin: I think it’s always a struggle and the definition of an independent film has become broadened. I guess the thing that you’d say is that brave and marginally funded films are a new thing. I think it’s great that in this town (Minneapolis) Landmark Theaters have nine or ten screens with good foreign-language and truly independent films, documentaries, and shorts festivals. Not many towns are so lucky. Unless you’re near a college, you’ve got to drive a hell of a long way to see something that’s independent. So I think we can do better. In the summer, it’s always impossible. I would hate to be an independent theater owner during the summer, because people just plod along like zombies to the inevitable Pirates-of-the-Shrek-Caribbean-Die-Hard. I just can’t give a shit about that anymore. I feel like my time has become too precious to just fritter away two and a half hours on a gorgeous day watching another sequel and a bunch of trailers for other sequels. I just love that the guys who promote Transformers have been crowing about the fact that it’s the biggest opening of a non-sequel film in history. Is that something to be proud of? The thing I love about independent films is that they are not summarily targeted towards twelve-year-old boys. I believe damn near every other film is, except for ones like that new Claire Danes womany film (Evening). That’s about it. I’m a grown-up guy. It’s good to be not twelve anymore. You have to remember that being twelve, for most of us, sucked. We were smaller than the guys who thought it was cool to be twelve years old.
Chris: In addition to your critiques of Hollywood blockbusters, the book also includes stories of positive film-going experiences, like the Slamdance Festival. Have you discovered any other interesting film events since writing the book?
Kevin: The one thing I regret is that I never got a chance to go to South-by-Southwest in Austin. They have a great film festival. I’d love to go back to Telluride. The way I described Slamdance is the way that Telluride is all the time—very relaxed. There are no paparazzi around and no Hummers, or very few. There’s the Flicker Festival, where you can actually shoot your own 8-millimeter films and bring them in. There’s a Route 66 festival where films are picked that are shot within six days and are only six minutes long. And they have to be shot, of course, on the highway and the highway has to be part of the theme of the film. The festivals that I’ve been having fun with are the ones that become participatory, where you actually have a chance to submit even a small film. It’s amazing how many talented people there are out there simply with digital cameras and i-Movie.
Chris: I thought one of the more interesting stories of a film festival (in A Year at the Movies) was your account of that one in Finland.
Kevin: Oh, the Midnight Sun Film Festival?
Kevin: That was fantastic. The sun was out twenty-four hours a day. They start showing movies at 10:00 in the morning and they finish at 7:00 in the morning and take three hours for drinking and breakfast. I don’t know when anybody slept there besides me. It just became dreamy after a couple or three days. I saw a Jerry Schatzberg retrospective. Where the hell are you going to see that in the United States? I got to see Broken Blossoms with a live orchestra in a circus tent during a thunderstorm. That’s giving film context and that’s really what I was going after by writing the book. I wanted to wave and scream from the audience and—if anybody in the industry was reading it—to say, “We’re out here and we’re watching and we don’t really like what we see. We can do better and these are the experiences that tell me we can do better.” It always makes me tighten when I hear Michael Bay call himself an artist, because he’s not. He’s a merchant. He’s as much an artist as P.T. Barnum was an artist. He started in advertising. It’s amazing. It’s either music videos or TV commercials: that seems to be where all these film directors come from these days.
Chris: During our e-mail correspondence, you mentioned that you were doing some writing. Is that for your new book, Why Hollywood Sucks?
Kevin: Yeah. I’m hoping to find a publisher for it. It’s a distasteful process, because (publishers) hem and haw when they see something like that. The people who don’t hem and haw, most of them don’t have enough money to make it worth my while. It’s my living and I’ve got to make some sort of money off the whole dang thing. So, we’ll see. I have to keep updating it because new heights of suckitude keep getting reached by Hollywood every year.
Chris: Do you have any examples from this year that you want to talk about now?
Kevin: Something like Transformers. I really don’t think it ought to be the goal of the filmmakers to beat the shit out of the audience. Leave us something at the end; leave us a little room for our own imagination. So I’m updating chapters all the time, but I need to keep it to an even ninety-five in order to make my Martin Luther parallel. The day the book is released, I intend to take my manuscript and nail it to the door of the Chinese Theater in Los Angeles. Hopefully, they don’t have glass doors or I’ll get arrested. I might have to Velcro it to the door. That might even be better.
Kevin Murphy’s web site: http://www.kevinwmurphy.com/
The Mystery Science Theater 3000 home page: http://www.mst3kinfo.com/
The Film Crew: http://www.filmcrewonline.com/
Rhino Home Video’s Mystery Science Theater 3000 page: http://www.rhino.com/mst3k/index.lasso